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   For over two centuries America has lived in deep denial about the fundamental inequalities that call into question its democratic commitments.  Every so often, however, the true state of things erupts into public view.  Hurricane Katrina was such an eruption.  Even the mainstream media was shocked into reporting in chilling detail how, again and again, the storm found its victims among the racially and economically exploited and marginalized people of New Orleans.  African Americans, and other poor people as well (the dirt-poor Cajun population of coastal Louisiana), were left defenseless thanks to generations of discrimination and exclusion, and the malignant indifference of a government preoccupied with its imperial adventures abroad and the welfare of its corporate benefactors here at home.

     Writing months after Katrina, what more is there to say?First of all, we can add an important footnote to the grim record of that horrific natural and social disaster.  Two paramedics attending a conference in New Orleans at the time, made a salient observation that reminds us that American culture suffers from class as well as racial blindness.  While stories about heroic soldiers rescuing the imperiled multiplied, the unsung and invisible heroes of those trying days, according to these two eyewitnesses, came from the working class of New Orleans:  “The maintenance workers who used a fork lift to carry the sick and disabled.  The engineers, who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running.  The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretching over blocks to share the little electricity we had in order to free cars stuck on rooftop parking lots.  Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive.  Doormen who rescued folks stuck in elevators.  Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, ‘stealing’ boats to rescue their neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters.  Mechanics who helped hot-wire any car that could be found to ferry people out of the City.  And the food service workers who scoured the commercial kitchens improvising communal meals for hundreds of those stranded.  Most of these workers had lost their homes, and had not heard from members of their families, yet they stayed and provided the only infrastructure for the 20% of the New Orleans that was not under water.”

     Then there’s the question about the role of government. Many have singled out the systematic denigration and dismantling of the public sector over the past quarter century as a major contributing cause of the horror of New Orleans. Clearly, there is much truth to that. But it is necessary to point out that those who have belittled and attacked “big government”—both Republicans and Democrats—have done so selectively. The rebuilding of New Orleans is a case in point. On the one hand, among the very first measures taken by Washington was the suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act protecting the wages of construction workers, and the lifting of wage supports for certain public service workers. Right away the Bush Administration floated the idea of suspending various environmental regulations to speed up the rebuilding process. That’s the kind of “small government” companies like Halliburton and Bechtel are after. But they also expect some serious heavy lifting from “big government” in the form of tax breaks, subsidies, cost-plus and no-bid contracts, Federal funds to support the infrastructure of waterways and highways that the oil and gas refineries and chemical plants of the Gulf Coast rely on, and the kind of rezoning of waterfront areas for luxury redevelopment that helped make New Orleans so vulnerable to flood waters to begin with. The question has never been simply big versus small government, but who the government is going to serve, the Old Deal vs. the New Deal. Whatever the immediate outcome in New Orleans, regional renewal is a class as well as a racial question, and without a mass, multicultural labor movement, odds favor the Old Deal.

     Finally, there is the looming specter of the next New Orleans, for who can doubt that there will be a next one. Natural disasters are, at least some of the time, predictable. It’s the convergence of a natural with a social calamity that our pundits rarely forecast, but which makes New Orleans not so much a dreadful accident as a kind of collective homicide. In future issues, New Labor Forum will try and zero in on those sites where accumulated neglect, exploitation, and exclusion are likely to turn a bad enough “act of God” into a far worse human tragedy, singling out for special victimization the poor and defenseless.

* * * * * *

     On September 27, 2005, a new national labor organization was born, the Change to Win Federation. No crystal ball can tell us its future, or the future of the rival AFL-CIO. Harsh words have been exchanged by partisans of the two sides, although cooler heads have also surfaced, helping to staunch what could easily have turned into internecine raiding parties. New Labor Forum is dedicated to keeping open the lines of communication and to making its pages available for productive dialog. With that in mind, we invited Ruth Milkman and Jeff Crosby to comment on the nature of the split in the labor movement, what the big issues are, and who’s right and who’s wrong. We invite our readers to respond to the arguments of Milkman and Crosby. And New Labor Forum will continue to probe the concrete implications of the split, at the local as well as at the national level, as developments warrant.

     Both sides agree that the past policy of the AFL-CIO on immigration was wrong and exclusionary. But the immigration question is a complex one. In our next issue, we will explore the way it threatens to break apart the Republican Party coalition between the Party’s corporate elite, which favors the influx of a vulnerable and easily exploited labor pool from abroad, and the Party’s conservative populist base which has become increasingly resentful and xenophobic, blaming immigrants for its own economic and cultural dispossession. In the current issue, Stephen Steinberg suggests that there is another dangerous division, this one between African Americans and immigrants. He argues that immigrant job-seekers have moved into the labor force at the expense of African Americans, and do so in part and, ironically, thanks to the gains of the civil rights movement. We invited Adolph Reed, Maria Elena Durazo, Gary Gerstle, and Peter Kwong to respond to Steinberg’s provocative article, and Steinberg is given the last word. His article appears here in collaboration with the journal New Politics, where the article first appeared in the summer 2005 issue. New Politics will run a different set of responses in its forthcoming issue. We encourage our readers to follow the debate in both journals.

     Corporate-dominated globalization is the two-ton gorilla threatening working people everywhere, blithely eluding the efforts of labor here and abroad to restrain it. For this reason, the journal is committed to expanding its international coverage. In this issue, Jeremy Brecher, Brendan Smith, and Timothy Costello explore what might be done from a practical standpoint to enhance the prospects for international labor solidarity. Any progress in this direction must address the China question. The Chinese economy is the engine room of globalization, its vast labor force exerting a tidal influence over economic developments both in the industrialized West and throughout the Third World. Jenny Chan, a Chinese graduate student and secretary of the Chinese Working Women Network, continues our ongoing discussion of “the China question” in her analysis of the vast migration of women from rural China into the Special Economic Zones of the coastal cities where these women are systematically exploited by domestic Chinese and foreign manufacturers and retailers.

     The practical difficulties of fostering international solidarity are mirrored here at home where ethnic and racial divisions have always posed a serious dilemma for organized labor. While the debate over the Steinberg article examines the problem at a rather general level, Rinku Sen offers a more ground-level view of how new forms of organizing in the restaurant industry have successfully tackled racial and ethnic hierarchies that so often divide the workforce. Restaurants, in particular, employ thousands of new immigrants, often undocumented. In this issue’s “Working-Class Voices of Contemporary America” column, Debbie Nathan provides a compelling evocation of the life and work of Latino restaurant workers in New York City. Coincidentally on the restaurant theme, we also offer Bill Morgan’s “The Yummy Pizza Curriculum,” a story about a bunch of elementary school kids running a mock pizza parlor in their classroom. Morgan’s ingenious lesson reintroduces questions about labor and capital into an educational system grown virtually indifferent to such matters.

     Friends and enemies, rightly and wrongly, often accuse the labor movement of being out of touch with the information age. Arthur Shostak, a long-time friend of labor, argues here that trade unions can and must take far greater advantage of the Internet, and he makes some concrete suggestions about how they might go about it. Of course Kim Phillips-Fein also believes in the value of the Internet and her “Caught in the Net” column for this issue singles out a number of particularly valuable sites for those interested in the why the U.S. economy seems to systematically generate low-wage jobs, how the union-busting industry does business, and other matters.

     In keeping with this issue’s concern with immigrants, the section also includes a review of Immigrants, Unions, and the New U.S. Labor Market, a book by Immanuel Ness which argues that today’s new immigrants are more likely to organize than other workers, but that unions are more often their enemy than their ally. Wallace Katz’s review of the movie Crash looks beneath the film’s compelling account of ethnic and racial collisions in L.A. to discover signs of the opposite; a promising new multi-cultural coming together to form a more humane global city. Max Fraser continues New Labor Forum’s explorations into the origins of working-class conservatism, by reviewing a history of the construction trades unions by Grace Palladino, entitled Skilled Hands, Strong Spirits: A Century of Building Trades History. As always, we conclude with some poetry, this time by two West Coast poets, Wanda Coleman and Jimmy Santiago Bacca.                                                                                            Page up

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